Soulful and captivating, Ghanaian painter Annan Affotey’s portraits embody his subjects with a depth of emotion that invites us to connect with his subjects and their stories. Affotey is a graduate of Ghanatta College of Art and Design as well as winner of awards for Best Student of Still Life, Best Imagination and Composition, and Best Abstract Drawing. He is currently based in London.We discuss his influences, the importance of community and connection with fellow Ghanaian artists and the love and care at the heart of his creative process.
Can you tell us about your childhood in Ghana? Did you begin painting and drawing at an early age or in later years?
In Ghana I grew up with my mum, dad and several sisters. My dad was also an artist and he used to draw when I was little. One of my favourite memories was sitting with him and watching him draw. Around the age of 11 years old I really started getting into art, mainly through drawing and colouring. I would sketch images around me, such as movie posters and comics.
As an alumnus of the Ghanatta College of Art and Design you maintained friendships and supportive connections with many of the artists you studied alongside. How has this shaped or encouraged your art?
I am very close with my artist friends from Ghanatta. We share ideas together all the time. Back in the day, after school we would all come together and help each other paint and sketch and learn from one another. Sometimes one person would be really good with colour mixing and they would teach us. Or another person was good at portraits, and they would give us advice. Even now we still support each other. We do this is through sharing each others’ paintings, referring one another to collectors, and discussing different galleries. I don’t feel any competition between us, which is a really beautiful thing for the industry.
Who are your favourite up and coming artists at the moment?
There are some artists who have been here for a long time but haven’t been seen yet. Ishmael Ofosu Legrand-Sawyer and Richard Adusu - both men have been my mentors. Also, my good friend Musah Swallah creates art inspired by hairstyles he used to see in Ghana.
Having lived in Ghana, the United States and now Britain, do you feel these three different countries have had a distinct influence on your work?
Yes, living in Ghana I was surrounded by the culture and everyday life. During my time in Ghana, I used to paint people braiding hair because my sister worked at a hair salon. I also painted a lot of subjects carrying goods on their head “kaya yei.” When I moved to the US, I didn’t see those images anymore, so I started incorporating both Ghanaian and American ideas together. I started painting more colourful buildings like you see in Ghana and adding snow into them (as a way to combine the US and Ghana). Once I moved to Oxford I dove further into portraiture; I did some portrait work before but it was more experimental. Once I moved to Oxford and experienced the birth of my son, I was inspired to make art that represented him.
Through your 'Complexion' series you express and challenge the experience of misinterpreted identity you encountered in the US by creating portraits that convey emotion and stories through bold poses and rich colours. What do you hope people take away from seeing your work?
I want the viewer to take away a special experience. For example, one subject in a painting has one hand fully painted and one hand unpainted. I want the viewer to be able to take a moment and become a part of the painting itself. The eyes are something that I want the viewer to connect with as well. I want to encourage and inspire the viewer. Every painting has a story and I want the viewer to connect with the subject when they view the painting.
How has preparing for a series of new exhibitions this year been while living in lockdown due to the pandemic? Have you had to adapt your routine or space at all?
It has been great for me. At first, I thought I would be bored but really it has been a great thing for me and it’s allowed me to improve my figurative work. Thankfully I have a studio in my home, during the pandemic I just expanded it a little bit, but I’m looking forward to getting a larger space.
The gorgeous, bold background colours in your portraits are often influenced by the favourite colour of the subject you are painting; this is one of the many ways your love, respect and commitment to the people you paint and the work you create shows in every aspect of your process. What inspires and motivates you most of all?
The character and integrity of the person I’m painting inspires me the most. Also, the colours come from the expression of the characters face, sometimes I talk with the subject and try to combine colours they love with the painting.
Your sumptuous, glowing portraits can be up to seventy-two by sixty inches in size; what do you enjoy about working in these dimensions?
I like working on bigger canvases because I feel I can express myself more - my brush strokes are easier to get and it’s easier to get the rich texture and details. I look at smaller paintings I did and I can’t believe I used to paint that small.
In 2013 you helped found the African Young Artist Organization. What does it mean to you to be able to create more support and resources for young African artists?
In 2013 a few friends and I decided to help a group of young artists, because there isn’t much opportunity for artists in Ghana. Especially for the youth. The foundation is to help young artists and encourage them not to give up on their dreams. In Ghana the arts aren’t a priority, despite the booming global industry, and we believe it’s important to support the youth in their artistic journey
What important changes would you like to see in the art world?
We are seeing some of the changes happening already. Back in the day you would rarely see African artists in museums. Now the tables are turning, now the art world is opening up and learning about African artists. I want this change to continue. It also brings hope that artists are being more transparent and supportive of each other, which is an important cultural shift.
What projects and plans are you excited to explore in your paintings in the coming years?
I’m hoping to combine my portraiture with my semi-abstract techniques that I used to do; so, in the future you might see portraiture combined with some of my old techniques. I have also thought about doing a few series featuring relationships such as a father and son series.